Monday, September 10, 2007

Family Flying 5 - Wes

My littlest brother, Wes. Considering the ways in which my other brother and I "contributed" to Wesley's childhood, it's remarkable that he's turned out as cool as he is. Surely he would not be such a good guy if David and I hadn't "helped" him build so much character, right? I consider him one of my greatest works. Which also means that I get some credit for the incredible little boy he and my wonderful sister-in-law are raising (and the second one that just arrived). Right?

Wesley had waited patiently while I flew with my Nana, mom, and dad. Now that it was his turn, everyone else was tired of waiting and decided to head to a restaurant. And it was getting dark. I enjoy flying at night. The air is often still, smooth, and clearer than during the day, and it can feel like the plane is just suspended above the lights. Wes and I took off to fly the "beach tour" that I had done with my Nana and mom, and we got to enjoy the silhouette of the White Mountains to the west, against the remnants of a beautiful sunset.

It grew completely dark as we headed down the beach and, since nobody was waiting at the airport for us to return, I continued past Ogunquit down to York. The Nubble Light lighthouse in York is a favorite place for Wes and Brandie. Since long before Emerson was born, Wes and Brandie have loved going to The Bagel Basket in York, then walking along the beach by the lighthouse. They've continued doing this with Emerson, and even now with Owen. The lighthouse no longer casts its light, as I presume sailors can use GPS just like pilots do, and no longer need to be warned of rocks. There is a little red, blinking light on the top of the lighthouse, though, and I flew a circle around it (1,000 feet above) while we looked down on the dim outlines we could make out.

I flew back to Sanford and decided to land on Runway 25. Although the wind was relatively calm, and Runway 14 is the preferred runway, Runway 25 is large and has approach lighting -- the "Christmas Tree" that can be seen for miles. Since Wes didn't get to see anything while it was light out, I figured I'd give him the experience of the big runway and all the lights. I triggered the lights as we approached the airport. I showed him how I could turn them down or up, then I set them to high for maximum effect. We landed and taxied back, he helped me push the plane into the hangar and lock it up, and we headed to a restaurant to meet my family.

I felt bad about Wes not getting to see much because of the late hour, so I offered to fly him again the next morning. We got a late start, though, and the wind had started to pick up by the time we took off. Wes asked me to explain everything I was doing. I love talking about what I'm doing and why, and I was happy that he was interested.

We headed West this time, over toward my parents' cottage on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. It's an hour's drive, but only about 25 nautical miles. There were quite a few bumps. I climbed to 4,500 feet in search of smoother air and slowed the plane down to soften the bumps, but it only got a little better. There was also a strong headwind, around 25-30 knots, which slowed our progress.

As I approached the area where my parents' cottage is located, I looked at the small mountain ridge just to the West. With the 25-knot wind coming over that ridge, I was hesitant to descend to 1,000 feet above the ground, below the ridge. There was a gap in the hills to the South, which could provide a safe exit without climbing, but I did not want to be caught in the horizontal rotors and downdrafts that can be caused by wind coming over a ridge, so I stayed higher, at least 500 feet above the ridgeline. It was plenty bumpy even at that altitude.

Wesley snapped a photo of the area where the cottage is located and we headed back toward Sanford. Even with our airspeed dialed back to soften the turbulence, our groundspeed was around 135 knots. I listened to the automated weather reporting at Sanford as we approached the airport. The wind was from 250 degrees at 11 knots, gusting to 19 knots. I explained to Wes that the wind was right down Runway 25, which was good, but that I would keep our approach speed a little higher to compensate for the gusts. It was really quite bumpy in the traffic pattern, and the wind gusts kept me busy with the yoke -- as I turned onto our base leg, a gust tipped the plane to about 60 degrees. Fortunately, I was keeping our airspeed higher than I normally would, to give me better control authority, and I quickly corrected without losing any significant amount of altitude. The approach was a little tense, though, and Wes later did a very funny impression of me with my right hand "white-knuckled on the throttle," and my left hand on the yoke in seizure-like motion.

We crossed the fence at 70 knots and I held the plane in the roundout for a while before flaring. Surprisingly, the touchdown was baby soft. I was "white-knuckled on the throttle," prepared for the gusts to balloon or drop us, but neither happened and there was hardly a bump as the wheels touched down. Nevertheless, as we taxied back to the FBO there was plenty of humor about airing out the cockpit, cleaning the seats, etc. Other family members had arrived after breakfast, waiting for possible rides, but I wasn't about to take them up. It was not unsafe to fly in that wind, but operations close to the ground were a little squirrelly. I would go do pattern work in that weather just for the practice, but it wouldn't have been fun for them or me to go out just for a fun, scenic flight.

I forgot to have Wes sign my logbook, but maybe he'll drop a comment here. I loved flying with him, both times, and look forward to more of it. His son's interest in flying is infectious, I think, and may have infected Wes. I suspect that, given the opportunity, he'll end up a pilot himself.

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